State officials have said that the layoffs came because of budgetary cutbacks mandated by the legislature, but many preservationists and archaeologists believe that the dismissals were targeted on an office that has been an outspoken champion of archaeological sites threatened by high-profile development projects.
The three scientists who lost their jobs were the heart of the five-person Antiquities Section lodged within the state's Division of State History. They helped enforce archaeological compliance laws, recorded ancient sites and human remains discovered on state and private lands, built a network of volunteer stewardship, and performed educational outreach to schools.
"The program I spent my career building has been destroyed in one fell swoop," said Jones, in a phone interview after the ax fell. He had served as Utah's state archaeologist for 20 years. Assistant State Archaeologist Ronald Rood, also laid off, wrote on an archaeological association message board: "This is a most unfortunate situation since there are human remains left to be analyzed and repatriated, unfinished projects and reports and more than anything, a severe void at State History where archaeological resources are no longer considered to be paramount or significant."
Jones has crossed swords with influential state legislators during his tenure, as written here in a profile of him last year. Rood, when contacted by phone, said that the dismantling of the Antiquities Section "was a culmination of things that have been happening since Range Creek," alluding to his office's sparring with other state agencies over the preservation of a nearly pristine, 1000-year-old settlement discovered in 2002 in central Utah.
Rood says that in recent years his office has "called foul" on several private archaeological contractors "that were using some unqualified people." Shortly after that, the state legislature stripped the Antiquities Section of some functions, such as permitting for private archaeological contractors. Several years ago, state legislators also weakened the section's authority, effectively reducing its influence in interagency matters related to archaeology.
The firings and the way they were carried out (Jones and colleagues were immediately escorted from the building) dismayed Utah's archaeological community. Says James Allison, an archaeologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, and the president of the Utah Professional Archaeological Council: "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was politically motivated; it certainly appears that way." The Antiquities Section is responsible for giving advice on the protection of archaeological resources, he said. "This sometimes meant going up against powerful, well connected people."
But in a press conference yesterday, Utah's Governor Gary Herbert rejected that notion: "The fact that these people were let go has nothing to do with anything they've ever done. It has to do with the direction we got from the Legislature and the budget cutting process."
Wilson Martin, the acting director of the Division of State History, also denies that raw politics played a role in the layoffs. He says that an orderly reorganization of the office will take place, with the three lost positions being consolidated into one new hire—a forensic anthropologist. But Allison doesn't think the office can be downsized and still be effective because it was already having trouble keeping up with the work load.